Schools need advice on how to help students with reading difficultiesJohn Munro, University of Melbourne
As students prepare to go back to school, it’s estimated that between 10% to 16% of those aged from five to 16 years will have reading difficulties such as dyslexia and inadequate comprehension skills.
All teaching makes particular assumptions about how students tend to learn. For these students, regular literacy teaching will be insufficient. They need alternative teaching pathways.
Despite numerous policies, such as the Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership, and the A$706.3 million spent between 2008-2014 on reading programs to support students, literacy underachievement continues to plague Australian education, suggesting that current interventions are not working for all students. Teachers don’t necessarily know how to teach these children.
The problem is not a lack of research about what works. It is more the lack of guidance for teachers and schools in how to use this knowledge in teaching.
School leaders are responsible for making definitive decisions about educational provision in their schools. They need clear and explicit guidelines on how to choose effective literacy interventions that will work for these students.
Why do some students struggle with reading?
Reading comprehension is a complex process. Students have difficulty comprehending text for several reasons:
Some don’t know the sounds that make up spoken words (phonological and phonemic skills) or have difficulty saying letter patterns accurately (phonic skills). These lead to word reading and spelling difficulties, or dyslexia.
Some lack the vocabulary and other oral language knowledge that scaffolds reading comprehension.
Others have a relatively poor self-concept as a reader. They believe they can’t learn to read and disengage from literacy.
Some students don’t transfer what they learn about reading some texts to other texts.
Any interventions, then, need to cater for this range of differences.
Research suggests that reading comprehension could be improved by teaching:
- explicitly phonological and phonemic skills
- phonic skills
- how to improve reading fluency
- ways to enhance vocabulary
- how to visualise and summarise what a text says while reading, and generate questions
- how to use various idea-organising techniques such as concept mapping to link the ideas in the text.
Teaching the sound patterns and how to say written works is particularly useful for dyslexic difficulties.
Interventions that work
The Early Reading Intervention Knowledge (ERIK) program is an example of how research can be used to develop school-based interventions.
Developed from a large research analysis of the causes of early reading difficulties in the early 2000s, it has been used in grade 1-5 in Catholic primary schools in Victoria.
Students are allocated to one of three parallel intervention pathways depending on their reading difficulty profile; a phonological pathway, an orthographic pathway for students who have phonological skills and difficulty reading letter clusters, and an oral language pathway. Students can move between pathways.
A recent evaluation, available for Catholic Education Melbourne, showed that the three intervention pathways are very effective in improving the reading outcomes of students who underachieve or are at risk of future reading and writing difficulties.
Effect sizes were calculated for eight reading profiles, based on whether the students began with difficulties in one or more of reading comprehension, accuracy or rate. Students with difficulties in two or more areas improved in excess of two years in comprehension and in accuracy. The intervention usually lasted between one and two terms.
Younger students benefited more from the phonological and orthographic interventions while their older peers benefited more from the oral language intervention.
Findings such as these have implications for schools.
How to select the right program for your school
When a school leader is selecting a program to help improve students’ literacy outcomes they first need to ask:
- Does it match the range of ways in which my students underachieve? Students need a program that accommodates their reason for underachievement.
- Does it have multiple parallel literacy learning pathways, and doesn’t assume that one size fits all?
- Does it have explicit teaching procedures for each pathway? How comprehensive and systematic are they?
- Does it provide a means for identifying each student’s literacy learning profile and for deciding the pathway for optimal progress for that student? Or does it assume that all students will best progress by following the same pathway?
- What research supports the effectiveness of the intervention? Does it provide data that show that students of different reading profiles make progress using it?
- Is it based explicitly on an accepted research theory of how students learn to read? Many programs are not based on a rigorously and extensively researched theory.
These are key issues that any school leader who is thoughtfully and responsibly selecting a literacy intervention program in 2016 needs to answer.
Many know their current interventions do not work for all underachieving students. Decisions they make will live with their most academically vulnerable students for years to come. Education providers need to develop clear guidelines to ensure teachers are making appropriate decisions.